If we could offer only one piece of advice to managers and coaches who want to improve the way they provide feedback to their team members, it would be to ask more questions. This can be a lot harder than it sounds. Like most managers or coaches, you were likely promoted to your current role, because you were good at doing what you are now coaching others to do. When you are successful at something, it can be difficult to sit back and listen. You have valuable experiences. You have helpful insights. You have good ideas. And most of all, you have solutions that could help your team members achieve their goals if they’d just listen to you. It’s important, though, to realize that you can offer them the most help by first listening.
Questions increase engagement
When coaches talk and talk and talk, it’s tough for their team members to absorb their ideas. This is because most people are not passive learners. It’s almost impossible for people to decipher a lesson when they are being talked at. People tend to learn better when they are engaging in the conversation. And there’s no better way to help people engage than to ask them questions.
We have an exercise we like to do with coaches in our seminars. We have them simulate a feedback conversation with a partner, with one person playing the coach and the other person playing the team member receiving feedback. We only give one ground rule for this conversation—the coach cannot give any feedback, advice, or suggestions until they’ve asked at least seven questions.
Questions increase collaboration
When we debrief the exercise, the coaches all admit how hard it is to ask so many questions before giving feedback. Many of them want to jump in with their ideas immediately after asking their first question. Others are more comfortable getting out a few questions before the itch to talk really kicks in.
Yet, in spite of their discomfort with this new approach, the coaches always recognize that the simulated feedback conversation goes much better than their typical feedback. They like how their partner shares more insights. They feel like the other person actually self-identifies issues and strategies for addressing them quite often. And the people playing the team member always remark how the conversation feels collaborative. They even say they don’t feel like they were being coached, but rather that they are just talking with someone about ways to get a better result.
Questions promote self-discovery
One of the major benefits of questions is that they promote self-discovery. By asking your team members questions, you are helping them learn how to evaluate their own performance. This allows them to self-identify the areas where they feel they can improve. Ultimately this will also help them make necessary changes, because when people recognize themselves that they need to get better, they are much more likely to be open to suggestions. To help you decide what types of questions to ask, we provide a performance feedback template at www.ecsellinstitute.com/templates.
Be mindful of tone
Keep in mind that using questions to coach can be problematic when you do it the wrong way. When asking questions, be sure to watch your tone of voice. If you tend to be a very direct or matter-of-fact communicator, your questions could be perceived as aggressive. You don’t want to put people on the defensive, so be careful not to make your questions seem like a cross-examination in which you are trying to get the other person to slip up.
One of the best ways to ensure that your questions don’t feel too aggressive is to ask more what questions and fewer why questions. Asking someone why they did something can often make them feel like you disagree with their judgment and therefore put them on the defensive. Instead, ask your team members what they wanted to accomplish with their approach. Ask them what they learned from completing the task. Ask them what they’d like to try differently next time.
Above all, use questions as a way to learn more about your team members—how they think, how they want to improve, and how you can help them. The more you ask when giving feedback, the more likely you are to learn what you can do to be a better coach to them.